House hunting

A tour of abandoned buildings highlights the need to use available space for student accommodation.

House hunting 521 (photo credit: Courtesy of Hitorerut)
House hunting 521
(photo credit: Courtesy of Hitorerut)
Last week on a cold and cloudy Saturday morning, more than 400 people of various ages (and, according to the organizers, about half of them not residents of Jerusalem) took part in the Abandoned Houses Hunters’ Tour in the framework of the two-day Houses from Within event. The hunters, all young students and residents active in the Hitorerut B’yerushalayim movement, were represented by three social activist students, who revealed that the “hunt” for abandoned buildings and houses has been going on in an organized way for the past two years or so.
Yuval Admon, who is studying for a master’s degree in public administration at the Hebrew University, led the tour with Ori Even-Chaim, a graduate student in architecture, and Neta Ben-Ezra, a photography student, both at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design. They showed the group several of the 50 houses they have already located in the center of Jerusalem alone. According to Admon, there are at least 100 such buildings in the city, which means about 500 unused apartments.
“We first became aware of this situation two or three years ago,” says Merav Cohen, city council member for the Hitorerut party and among the first to locate and raise awareness about the abandoned houses. “It’s part of our policy of proposing solutions for the lack of affordable housing in this city, particularly for the young generation.”
Cohen and Admon say that besides the high risk of criminality in the abandoned buildings (use of drugs and alcohol), the situation contributes to the lack of available housing in the city and the consequent rise in rental prices.
“Of course, not all these houses can be turned into affordable housing for students, since quite a few are located in upscale neighborhoods. But besides the fact that it’s okay with us that well to-do families live there and through this they will perhaps release other apartments, it’s just not fair to see these abandoned places in some of the most beautiful neighborhoods of Jerusalem when so many young people can’t find a decent apartment. It’s a disgrace,” says Cohen.
Apartment owners, explains Even-Chaim during the tour, leave their properties empty for various reasons. Sometimes they just don’t want to rent them. Or if there was a fire, they don’t want to or cannot spend the large sums required to repair these houses.
“The fact that the municipality exempts them from paying their property tax in such a case helps these people to just let the property go. The land doesn’t lose its value, and meanwhile they don’t have to pay taxes. That is precisely the point on which we have put pressure on the municipality – as has been done in many Western countries – to change the present situation into a beneficial one,” she says.
Admon adds that one of their important achievements has been the inclusion of the group’s recommendations by Prof.
Manuel Trajtenberg in his report to the government, following this summer’s social protest campaign. As a result, the present situation – where abandoned houses in a state of disrepair are exempt from property tax – may soon undergo a substantial change.
“We have proposed to apply the use-it-or-lose-it policy that already exists in Western countries, in Europe and the States,” adds Admon. “By means of this policy, owners will be given a limit of nine months of tax exemption (in special cases they can obtain a six-month extension), after which they will have to pay full taxes. On top of this, after the nine months (or the additional six months), the owners will be required to repair the abandoned houses. If they fail to do so, the municipality will do it and charge the owners the full cost. An owner who refuses to repay the municipality will lose his property, but not before his name is splashed across the local media.”
It is still too early to say if the state and the Jerusalem Municipality will accept and implement these recommendations, but one serious step has already been taken.
Municipality director-general Yossi Heimann has approved the general outlines and has established a large committee that includes representatives of all the relevant departments at Kikar Safra.
“When we brought the scope of the situation to the attention of Mayor Nir Barkat and director-general Heimann and presented the details we gathered, their reaction was encouraging,” says Cohen.
And indeed, a first meeting of all department representatives involved took place about a month ago to discuss the situation and seek solutions.
One of the first steps taken by the new committee was to create a map of the whole city’s abandoned buildings, prior to a decision to contact the owners and take further steps.
The issue of abandoned houses is not to be confused with the case of “ghost houses” as they are called by young activists struggling for affordable housing. During his campaign for mayor, Barkat announced his fierce opposition to the situation in which wealthy Jewish foreign residents purchase luxurious properties in the city and live there for a total of about three weeks a year, leaving the houses, sometimes entire buildings, empty the rest of the year.
During the tour, Admon, Even-Chaim and Ben-Ezra took the participants to what they consider a successful renovation of an abandoned property, the former Eden Cinema on Agrippas Street near King George Avenue. Eden, which was one of Jerusalem’s central movie theaters until the late 1970s, is totally abandoned and has become an unsightly ruin in the center of the city. A construction project by architect Daniel Libeskind (who designed the memorial for Ground Zero in New York) has been approved and will soon be built there.
The Saturday tour ended at the former Etz Haim Yeshiva compound on Jaffa Road, near the entrance to the Mahaneh Yehuda market. The yeshiva’s administration evacuated the place a few years ago. Fearing that the proximity of the light rail might subject the students to examples of immodesty, they moved to the Jewish Quarter in the Old City. A project to reuse the plot was recently approved by the municipal planning and construction committee which, says Admon, is also taking into account the needs and rights of the residents.
Besides high-rise apartment buildings, there will be plenty of public spaces, a shopping center, coffee shops, restaurants and cultural facilities, all of which will not be not accessible to cars.
“And the best part,” concludes Admon, “is the decision to limit the size of the apartments to a maximum of 90 square meters. Thus it will not be luxurious housing that will turn into abandoned or ghost houses.”